When speaking to players who have made the journey from non-League into the professional game, there is generally one name that pops up again and again.
Dion Charles, in that regard, is no different. And you can probably guess the player.
“Jamie Vardy.” Of course.
“For all the boys who come from non-League he’s the inspiration,” Charles tells Sky Sports. “He’s the proof that if you work hard enough and you’re determined enough you will get there.
“The career he has had just shows it’s never too late. If you’re good enough you will get there.”
Charles, now 26 and the recent recipient of the Sky Bet League One Goal of the Month award for January, has ambitions of ploughing a similar furrow.
Released by Blackpool as a teenager, he dropped into non-League with AFC Fylde, then in the sixth tier, before heading back down there after a stint with Fleetwood – a former club of Vardy – did not work out.
In 2019 Accrington then took a chance to bring him into League One from Southport, and he has not looked back since.
“I was always confident in my ability,” Charles says. “It was just about having to work as hard as I could to get the opportunity to get back into the League.
“I went into non-League at 18. I then joined Fleetwood but things didn’t work out there so I ended up back in non-League and then had to work even harder to get back out.
“If you look at the players who come out of non-League and go into the Football League, they always do really well. It’s just a credit to the non-League system. There are really good players in there who just need a chance. And if you do get it you’ve got to give everything to make it work for yourself.
“Accrington then gave me a chance, and I’ll always be so grateful to them. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am now, playing for Bolton and a senior Northern Ireland international.”
His time in non-League turned out to be an invaluable experience, helping him prepare for the senior professional game in a way so many youngsters who spend too much time on benches or in the U23s struggle with.
It is a career lesson he is keen to pass on.
“I always have conversations with the youngers boys and I tell them to just get out there and play as many games as you can, no matter what league you’re in,” Charles says.
“It helps you learn the dark arts of the game, and it makes you more streetwise. You learn how to look after yourself and be a bit cute, and how to give a bit back. It gives you a massive grounding and it’s very much sink or swim. It’s experience you can’t gain from the U23s or when you’re not playing at all.
“As you do get older and go through different leagues those things don’t go out of the game, but the players you face get better and you need to be able to deal with all sides of the game because it’s a contact sport. You need to know the dark side and the footballing side.”
The January window saw him move across League One to Bolton and he barely could have started better, with six goals in his first 10 appearances.
The highlight so far coming with his two goals in a 6-0 thrashing of Sunderland at the end of last month. It showed how far a non-League lad had come, playing in a match that not too long ago was a fixture of the top flight.
“It’s been a brilliant start to my Bolton career,” says Charles. “In terms of on-the-field stuff I think I’ve made a good impression on everyone at the club, and I’m excited to see where things go.
“I didn’t actually realise how big a club Bolton Wanderers was until I got here, and with what you’re expected to do on and off the pitch. I’m delighted I’m here. For me it’s a club that has been at the top, it has all the facilities and the infrastructure as well to get back there. It just felt right for me to come here and progress my career.
“I was playing in non-League three years ago, so it’s only my third professional season. To come to a club like Bolton Wanderers is something I’m very proud of.
“The game against Sunderland was incredible. It hasn’t been too long since that was a Premier League game. They were flying at the time and we had been on a bit of a shaky run, so to go out there and perform like that was incredible.”
Charles may be in his mid-20s, but with it being just his third professional season he still feels fresh into the League and keen to improve.
“I’m still young and I’m still learning every day on the pitch to see how far it can take me,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’ve reached my prime yet, I still have a long way to go.
“I work hard every day to improve my game, and I’m seeing the benefits of that. I’ve scored six goals since I’ve been here, and I just need to keep working hard in all aspects to keep progressing.
“I’d like to finish on at least 10 by the end of the season personally, but I’ve played less than half a season so that would be good for me. In terms of the club we know where we should be, but we’re just taking it game by game to see where we end up.”
Confident in his ability, and on the right trajectory. You will not be too surprised to know he is determined to keep treading the same path as that man Vardy.
“For me I’d like to play at the top,” he says. “That’s my dream and I’m trying to give myself the best opportunity to get to the Premier League.
“Hopefully I will get there one day. But if not then it won’t be for lack of trying.”
Source : Sky Sports